Monday, December 22, 2014

Lucky China

4038 Butler Hill Rd
St Louis, MO

Angel set us up for a weekend getaway at the Hampton Inn, a deluxe room with jacuzzi. This is the way we occasionally spoil ourselves. A simple plan. Get a great room, pick up some Chinese takeout, plug in the portable DVD player and binge watch season three of the TV series 'Justified'.
Most of that we could do at home, though not the jacuzzi part. However, the whole point was to get away  from distractions for one freakin' night. When you run a small business out of your home it is very, very easy to get distracted. Especially if that small business is populated by living, breathing, barking, furry animals.
The reason for this particular weekend was that my birthday was on Sunday.
Adam's was the day after, so leaving him alone at the house was as much a treat for him.
Angel had assumed the hotel was in Arnold. So we drove there. Oops, that's a Drury Inn, we were booked in a Hampton. So she fired up Tina, her new Tom-Tom GPS device and saw that we were about three miles away.
So up Lemay Ferry we went, just across the Meramec River into St. Louis County, then onto Butler Hill road and there it was.
The Place:
She'd checked ahead for a decent Chinese takeout place, but it was back in Arnold. So when we checked in, I asked the very helpful lady at the desk if there were any nearby Chinese places. She handed me a list of about twenty nearby restaurants with phone numbers. There were six or seven Chinese places on the list.
We saw a Walgreens from the hotel, Angel said she needed to pick something up anyhow, so we took a chance and just drove to it, hoping we'd see something on the way or nearby.
Just across from the Walgreens was a small shopping center, sure enough, in big bright red letters: 'Chinese Food'.
This is of course, kind of risky. Some Chinese places just aren't as good as others. Most don't have web sites so it's a little tough doing advance research. We didn't know this area very well either, so we didn't even have a recommendation.
There was a multi-page menu taped to the front window so we studied it first. It seemed to have everything we were after, so we crossed our fingers and marched in.

The Food:
A young Chinese man stepped up to the counter. Behind the counter, sitting on the floor, was an adorable little girl of about three or four, or maybe five or six, I can't tell anymore, poking away at an E-tablet. She also had earbuds in so she was completely absorbed and never even looked up.
Angel pointed at things on the counter menu, choosing three combo meals.
Yeah, three. It's the way we do things when we want a buffet but we want it at home. So she first asked for General Tso's, because sesame gets really, really sickly sweet after a while. next was the 'Cashew style' otherwise known as 'Springfield style' for those of us who know the center of the American style Chinese food universe. Then she picked a new one, Shrimp in Lobster Sauce. I liked the sound of that.
Each combo meal came with a couple of sides so when you do this, you get a pretty good variety. Fried rice, white rice and in this case, crab Rangoon.
We'd pre-packed a few paper plates and some real silverware, because we've done this before.
There was of course, about a ten minute wait. That's when I decided that we might be reviewing the place, if and only if it turned out to be good. This was a vacation and I didn't want to spoil it by blogging, so I hadn't planned on reviewing anything. But I had a feeling. So I went out front and started taking photos, just in case.
Soon enough, the food was brought out in a single thick bag by a young lady whose English was still a little rough, but we could make out that it sounded like what we ordered.
We got to the room, and laid out the spread on the buffet table. Well, okay, it was a desk, but a really wide one. As Angel opened everything I fiddled with the portable DVD and got it going on the big, swiveling, wall mounted flat panel.
I said it was a deluxe room, right?
"Wow." she said. I looked down. The containers were opened and what it was, well, 'pretty'. We're more accustomed to 'dump it into the bucket' joints. This actually looked arranged.
The glaze on the General's was beautiful, the bright steamed broccoli (blech!) lined up between the chicken and the rice. The rice itself was highlighted by some generous chunks of chicken.
The cashew style was generous with finely chopped veggies, it even had some of those tiny ears of corn. The Shrimp was enormous and bathed in a soup like sauce.
The wontons were all identically hand folded into a floral style.
It was almost too pretty to disturb.
We each filled our plates with a little of almost everything and pressed 'play' on the portable DVD.
Deputy U.S. Marshall Rayland Givens started off all fists and guns and hillbillies pushing dope and shooting each other. Perfect.
The best thing on the buffet, at least the thing that stood out the most, was the rangoons. They were crispy on all sides. Most places can't keep the bottoms crispy, Lucky had this perfect. All of them, the bottom as crisp as the edges.
It was all very, very good. Noticeably good, stand out good.
I was planning to take the weekend off. The only reason I reviewed this place at all was because it was just that much better than most Chinese places. You know the ones I'm talking about. Everyone knows a place or two that they've tried once and decided never to go back to, even if that meant driving a little farther.
Hillsboro has one of those. We ordered there once, never again. I've never reviewed it or uttered it's name and I don't plan on ever reviewing it. I just don't care for Chinese food when I know it is going to be disappointing.
But Lucky is a standout. If there weren't thirty other Chinese joints between my house and Lucky's I'd make it our new go-to place. We will certainly go there again whenever we make it back up to that particular area of South County.

In the morning we had some complimentary coffee, packed up and headed out. We decided to find some breakfast. Angel had located a Denny's down the road. I mean, road breakfast = Denny's right?
So we went in to the really crowded and busy place, were seated and offered drinks. I needed more coffee, we'd watched a LOT of 'Justified' the night before. Angel asked for orange juice.
We glanced at the seasonal menu appendix. Not being a fan of 'pumpkin' as a flavor, in anything, we both quickly passed on that card.
In the main menu, I thought for a moment about the country fried steak, but settled for a grand slam instead. Four breakfast items any combination. I went for biscuit, bacon, hash browns and two eggs, over medium. Angel also asked for hash browns to go with her scrambled eggs, ham and English muffin.
I thought about asking for juice too, the coffee didn't seem to be very good. Not old or bitter, just not right, maybe too weak.
The eggs weren't pretty like those you get at Waffle House, they were dull and flat. There was about a pound of butter in a ramekin for the one biscuit and there were more hash browns than anything else. A disproportionate amount. As far as feeding the eye this was not as pretty as the pictures. It looked rushed and unenthusiastic. The hash browns were done, but just barely. We like them crisp at least a little bit. They weren't bad, but they sure could have used a little more time on the grill. The eggs, a little less, it was barely runny. We were fed, but not quite pleased.
Waffle House would have been a much better choice.

Post-Epilogue Final Wrap-up and. Conclusion:
 Overall it was quite a nice weekend getaway. We had a good time, had time to really relax, got plenty of uninterrupted sleep. We were still talking about the previous evening's 'buffet' on the short drive home. We were packing leftovers.
So if anyone asks, I'm proud to say we 'got Lucky' that night and recommend everyone we know to do the same.

Lucky China on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 15, 2014

Poppy's Ristorante

2000 N. Truman Blvd.
Festus, Mo.
On the Web
On Facebook

Somehow, it seems we end up at Poppy's in the winter. Not by any master plan, mind you. We here  at Eat and Critique World Headquarters have never had a master plan, or even a minor plan.
But Poppy's makes me think of the holiday season.
Maybe it's the heavy oak decor that frames garlands perfectly.
The Place:
It is a beautiful restaurant. Oak floors, thick, carved oak booths and bar, stained glass and Tiffany lamps, tasteful, soft framed artwork, modest chandeliers.
You really do forget that you are next door to a bowling alley.
It has a very upscale feel to it. The secret though is that price-wise it is very reasonable.
We entered and saw that it was busy. A group of tables had been lined up to accommodate a party of fourteen senior citizens. They were nicely dressed, most wore bright red sweaters which looked very jolly alongside the quaffed silver hair of the ladies.
We were led to a nearby booth at the front, near the bar. The scurrying staff were sharply dressed in all black.
Lindsay was to be our server. Yes, I am spelling that correctly, she insisted when she saw me writing it down.
She offered drinks, we responded with tea, tea and Pepsi. She handed us menus. I'd looked it over earlier in the day online, Angel and Adam had not. We had all agreed to try something other the the usual thing we got there. I usually get the cannelloni. I was really going to mix it up this visit.
Our tea and a basket of rolls arrived. I noticed the tea, it looked, perfect, so I sipped it. It was. One big point for Poppy's and we hadn't even ordered yet
Overhead a familiar tune played just over the din of the party of 14. "Pachelbel?" Angel asked. "Yes." I proudly answered. I didn't add that Pachelbel was merely the composer's name and that the name of the tune was, casually, Canon in D Major, formally, Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo, and in original German, Kanon und Gigue für 3 Violinen mit Generalba. Knowing things like this are not license to actually mention them in casual conversation, some people think that sort of thing is snooty. I first heard it and fell in love with it back in the early 80's after Carl Sagan used it and several other lesser know classical pieces in his landmark series 'Cosmos'. That now used-to-death-at-weddings song was followed up by a series of classic Christmas songs. Normally when shrouded by a marathon of these songs I tense up and start swearing. Not that I have anything in particular against most of the songs individually, it's the month long deluge of them that raises my hackles. Fortunately it wasn't very loud, so I managed to tune it out for the most part by eavesdropping on the party of fourteen. I didn't learn much from them. It turns out they weren't really very interesting people.

The Food:
We had the usual appetizer, toasted ravioli. Poppy's version is pretty good, crispy, meaty, with a chunky marinara. They came with an overabundant amount of the sauce. This would be an ominous portent of things to come. . .
The rolls were simply excellent. Nothing fancy, just a basic dinner roll, but warm and tender. The basket they came in also had some condiment packets of both butter and 'spread'.
We ordered.
Me: Spaghetti and Meatballs, and a 'Combination Salad' with the house dressing. Yes, spaghetti. I rarely order spaghetti at Italian restaurants, but it is the standard that all Italian eateries should be able to master. I had a mediocre spaghetti plate at the recently opened and reviewed Pasta House, and I skewered them for only having a mediocre version. I can make spaghetti, it's my go to Sunday dinner at home. I make it better than mediocre and can expect no less from an Italian Restaurant.
Angel:Tortellini Alla Panna (Tortellini with Cream) and a shrimp salad. Lindsay replied by saying they didn't have a shrimp salad. "No, no I meant spinach, not shrimp." She laughed at herself. Angel laughs at herself fairly often. It's part of her charm, she never ceases to amuse herself. I sometimes wish I could pleasure myself so completely. I tend to self abuse a lot.
Adam: One of the 'Specialty' pastas, Lemon Basil Rigatoni and a Caesar side salad.
Lindsay trotted off. I started taking notes and when it came to their orders I asked Angel which salad  she had asked for. Predictably she again said 'shrimp'. We laughed and laughed.
Meanwhile I noticed that of the six occupied tables I could see, our server seemed to be responsible for two, ours and the party of fourteen. Not a great plan. Large parties like that, and even more so by parties of successful senior citizens, are rather high maintenance. I first noticed this a few months back at an Olive Garden in Paducah, Ky. Our server there was worn out and frequently out of sight taking care of a large table full. Though we sympathized, we also find it a weak excuse. Surely these places know how much work a large party is, surely they should free up the server(s) of those tables from also having to take care of an additional, less demanding couple or trio.
Lindsay handled it well though. More on that later.
The salads came on small plates. The greens on mine were fresh, though the little tomatoes looked a day or two past prime. When I tried to cut the rough torn lettuce, quite a bit fell off the saucer. There was not enough saucer for the pile of salad in front of me. I could barely move the stuff around
without losing some overboard. The salad was very good, especially the sweet house dressing. The portion was too large though, for the plate and the meal.
Angel's was prettier than mine. Piled high shrimp . . . just kidding, spinach, sliced mushrooms and egg, crumbled bacon and large croutons. Hers too was more than ample. Too big really, for a 'side' salad, and falling off the plate. Adam started his by picking the mushrooms off his Caesar. He hadn't noticed the ingredient when he ordered it. Who puts mushrooms on a Caesar salad? He didn't have much of it, he said the dressing tasted a bit different from what he was accustomed to.
None of us finished our salads, we started them cautiously since pasta is very, very filling and we'd all ordered pasta as a main course. When we go to Ruby Tuesday's which has the best salad bar in the world, we order small meals since we know we are going to mega-load at the salad bar. As I said, mine was quite good, just too much.
The main courses arrived in a timely manner. The plates were more like serving bowls than dinner
Lemon Basil Rigatoni
plates. Mine had three or four large meatballs and was generously coated with a red meat sauce with noticeable tomato pulp. I like it like that. I cut open one of the meatballs and tried it first. Excellent, a blend of meats, definitely pork and probably some beef. The menu didn't describe it, so I'm going by what my highly skilled mouth tells me. The sauce tasted very good. Maybe not the best I've had, but certainly better than the generic, short-cut-laden stuff Pasta House served up.
Adam ate his with a puzzled look on his face. "For Lemon Basil pasta, I taste neither lemon nor basil." He reported. Mostly he tasted the white wine and olive oil.
Angel dived into hers. She didn't say anything about it for a while. We all noted that there was way more on our plates than we'd ever finish. When she did say something it was not especially positive. "Sort of dry in the middle, maybe it's the cheese."
I was full. I looked down at my plate and it looked like I hadn't even started. I felt embarrassed that I ate so relatively little of it. I just couldn't eat anymore though. I shoved it around to try to make it look like I'd had more than I did, like I did as a kid when given something I didn't like. The effort was futile though. I dug around into the vast depths of the bowl and realized I was served more spaghetti than I usually make for an entire family meal and even then there's some left over.
Well, I guess you can see where this is going.
We in flyover country are often stereotyped, and not completely inaccurately, as being among other things, fat. Our meals typically consist of laboring family fare, meat, potatoes, bread, gravy. Big portions of everything, the starchier the better. The problem is that not very many of us get up in the morning and work the fields for fourteen hours per day any more. We were a little slow in adapting our meals to fit a far less active life style. But here's the news. We get it. We may have been a bit late to the party, but in droves we're noticing what we're putting into ourselves. More important than what, is how much of what.
Just ask the burger chains. Even the king of those beasts, McDonald's, is starting to struggle with
Finish point
declining numbers. They're rushing to adapt menus to a new paradigm. People are just no longer slavishly stuffing themselves with the calorie bombs that served them so well for decades. People are eating there less. Big Mc is actually considering offering fresher, healthier food. This time they may actually mean it.
My thoughts on this are not limited or unique to Poppy's, at all. As far as taste goes, they were better than most. But the serving size was simply staggering. I asked around, my sources close to the local industry tell me that Poppy's keeps a LOT of takeaway boxes on hand. That itself should tell them something.
When I opened up the box for my late lunch/early dinner on Sunday, I heated up my typical amount for a home spaghetti meal. There was still more than half of the original serving left in the box.
Isn't too much food a good thing?
No. I found it embarrassing, intimidating and more importantly, wasteful. Prepared pasta dishes don't keep or reheat well at home. Chances are very good that more than half of what we ordered will be thrown away.
There's just no need for that. Sure it's pretty cheap to make, but I would have been satisfied to pay the same amount for one third to one fourth the serving size.
Enough of that for now.
The tab was very, very reasonable, especially if you compare it to the tonnage of food. Even if appropriately sized, the price would have been decent, Sixty three bucks for three entrees, side salads, drinks and an appetizer. Also, we had a $5 coupon thanks to being on their mailing list.
Lindsay did an amazing job, especially considering she was being throttled by that party of 14 boring people.
The comments I made about the food we did get should be filtered against an earlier comment. We all deliberately ordered things we'd not had there before. My spag was fine, but I like my usual, the  cannelloni better, etc. So this was partially a matter of us being bold and experimental.
Poppy's is very nice and quite good. A little better floor management and some adjusting of portion sizes would do them well. Please, offer different sizes of the pasta dishes. Some of us are actually trying to tone it down some. Let those that want a full box of pasta for themselves pay a higher price for the privilege. Nine bucks for a standard sized plate of tasty pasta is about right. A serving platter that could feed four should cost more.  More is not better.
Other than that, Poppy's is a fine place to go, above average in quality. It makes Pasta House look like Fazolis. Well, maybe not that bad.

*Monday. Sure enough the three boxes, still weighing several pounds cumulatively, are now in the dumpster. Angel tried reheating some, but it stuck together, as things like that (flour+water=paste) are apt to do. I'd scraped all the meat sauce out of mine to coat the one reheat I did yesterday, Adam wasn't real happy with the recipe on his to begin with. Bigger just does not equal better, sometimes super sizing is compensation for lack of quality.

Poppy's Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 8, 2014

Taytro's Bar and Bistro

343 North Creek Drive
Festus, Mo.
On the Interwebs
On the Facebook

Often mentioned by locals in social media discussions as one of the most recommended eateries in Jefferson County. Trattoria Giuseppe is usually mentioned as well. I concur. These two places pop to the top of my mind when queried as well, though there's a couple of places in DeSoto that are very close runners-up.
Giuseppe's is a make a reservation, sit-down, multi-course full Italian restaurant. Taytro's, as the name suggests, is a bar and bistro. Whereas Giuseppe's is high end dishes, Taytro's is more working class food, made extremely well.
Taytro's is by design, New Orleans style. The place to go in the area for jambalaya, po' boys and etouffee.
The Place:
Top of the hill above Highway A (Veteran's Blvd) near the intersection of 67 (Truman).  An unassuming place in a stand of standard, modern strip mall shops. We got there a bit early, we had other things to do while out. We weren't dragging the boys with us this time. This allowed us to loosen up a little more than usual, let our hair down, in our own way. By that I mean we looked around the flooring department at Lowes. The kind of stuff young bucks just don't have the patience for.
We went in and were seated by a young lady. There were several tables open, we got one in the middle of the floor. There was noise coming from the nearby bar. A few adults imbibing adult beverages and whooping it up a little to a sports game on the overhead TV. Fortunately it was muted,  unfortunately, the patrons were not. As best as I could make out it was football, American style, a game between Alabama and something that was referred to as a 'Mizzou'. The people at the bar seemed to be enjoying it though.
Yes, I know what a 'Mizzou' is. I just can't be vocally supportive of the state's biggest school since I have never had any affiliation it it other than sending precious and generous tax dollars to it. It would be blasphemous to root for a college other than those where I matriculated, even though to my knowledge Wayland Baptist University, (Plainview, TX) doesn't even field a team and The university of Southern California, where I did my graduate work, is just too far away to really care about and it's a bit embarrassing to cheer for a team that is named after a popular brand of prophylactics. I can only imagine the mascot.
As is their custom around holiday time Taytro's had thrown up some tinsel and garlands, a few lights, not too much though.
Pretty soon Claire came by and asked about drinks and appetizers. We both asked for tea and said no thanks to the latter.
I listened to the music a bit, pretty good, 'Ain't No Sunshine', 'Somethin's Got a Hold on Me'. . . cool stuff. The best of the evening was undoubtedly 'The Banana Boat Song' (Day-o) that had even the bartender, a goth-y, tattooed lady, dancing around like they did in the movie 'Betelgeuse'.
I was jumping around on the menu. Truth be told, I wasn't feeling very well. I hadn't eaten since breakfast (apple pancakes! Mmmm!) but I was feeling a little queasy. I didn't want anything heavy.
The Food:
I picked at the menu selections, finding fault with everything, too bready too ricey, didn't care much for this and that. When Claire returned for the second time I said "Sure, a catfish po' boy and chips, please."
Angel opted for the shrimp etouffee, she usually gets the crawfish version. She added the house salad, which is about the best house salad in the county. They use a sweet, poppy seed dressing that is to die for.
I knew immediately that I'd be asking for a box. I wasn't nearly hungry enough to finish an entire sandwich.
Angel's salad came out promptly, I watched the people watch football.
It wasn't very long before the main courses arrived. Sure enough my sammich looked enormous. Two full
crisp, golden catfish planks, lettuce, tomato slices a light dose of chipotle mayo. The still-warm, freshly made chips were a deep brown and lightly spiced. . . these are some awfully good chips. But boy was that a big sandwich. I cut it in half.
I love catfish. It's not a western Kentucky river-kid thing. I hated it when I was young. The only kind of fish I ever ate while growing up and even into early adulthood were tuna and fish sticks. Somewhere though I discovered the earthy flavor and texture that I often crave now.
When you order catfish in a restaurant, it is probably either a channel cat or a blue cat. These fish grow fast and they grow big, up to four feet, and have been known to attack human divers. Being opportunistic eaters, they'll go after just about anything that gets their attention. Though they have relatively small eyes, even big strong eyes could not see far on a silty river bottom, they use their 'whiskers'  (barbels) as range and direction finding food antennae. They can sense vibration and chemically analyze the water for the presence of nearby food sources. A pretty amazing critter. And tasty.
I cut the sandwich and bit in. The fish was perfectly cooked. only lightly breaded, it was crispy followed by moist, flaky white fish meat. I usually prefer catfish in nugget form, to dip into tartar sauce, but even a plank is pretty good. The bread, as I suspected, was rather dense and thick. It was going to slow me down. I've gotten to a point where, even though I like bread, I even still own and use a bread maker, I don't like the trend of putting sandwiches on mile-thick buns. Half the thickness of this would have been just fine. But the fish was spot-on.
Angel's stew-like etouffee had plenty of grill blackened shrimp along with onion, celery, bell peppers, andouille sausage and garlic, in a white wine, butter and cream sauce served over a couple of ice cream scoops worth of white rice. The buttered and grilled toast they serve with many of the dishes is awesome.
Compared to the crawfish version that she usually gets, she said "The crawfish seems more authentic." But admitted the grill job on the shrimp made up for a lot of that. She cleaned her plate.
As for me, I barely made it through the first half of the sandwich, and only about a third of the chips. Like I said, I was queasy.
Claire took very good care of us. Our food arrived complete, correct and in a timely manner. Our refills were appropriate and the chit-chat was minimal yet friendly. The rest of the staff seemed dutiful and competent, down to the hostess who, between new customer arrivals, busied herself standing in a tall bar chair updating the overhead chalk board with the evening specials, which at one interruption touted only 'Stuffed'.
The bill came in at a modest and appropriate thirty bucks and change. Not bad at all. Plenty of really good food for that price.
Taytro's has been near the top of our list since it first opened a few years back. We take visiting family there and recommend it to others. The powerful combination of very well made, unique (for the area) dishes, a decent bar, good, friendly  service and of course, the frequent live music (which we've never actually heard) makes it a very popular joint. It is modern, clean and convenient.
And the tea isn't awful.

Taytro's Bar and Bistro on Urbanspoon